The civil war which has raged since 2011 has caused at least 470,000 deaths, 7.6 internally displaced people and over 5 million refugees, many of them in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. Over a million Christians have fled the country or are internally displaced as a result of the civil war, and many others have been raped, tortured, kidnapped for ransom and killed.
The civil war grew out of the 2011 Arab Spring protest movement. Syrians began to protest against President Bashar al-Assad’s Baath Party government and to demand the release of political prisoners, and in March 2011 troops were ordered to fire on protestors. The ensuing unrest led to the development of an armed opposition that grew into a coalition of rebels trying to overthrow the government, including foreign Muslim extremists who flooded into Syria to join the fight.
Christians in Syria
The Syrian church dates back to New Testament times. Before the civil war, Syria was one of the easiest places in the Arab world to be a Christian and while there was some discrimination (for instance in connection with housing and employment) and some emigration, Syrian Christians enjoyed relative freedom and stability, were prosperous, had good relations with Muslims and were respected in society. They were allowed to worship and practise their faith without much official interference, and although meetings were monitored, Christian literature was freely available. The Christian population was concentrated in cities, especially Damascus, and consisted mainly of Orthodox and Catholic Christians, but there was also a small Protestant church.
During the civil war, Christians have been particularly affected in areas under the control of extremist Islamists who view them as an obstacle to a Sharia-governed country. In these areas, widespread violence has included attacks on Christians, their property and church buildings. Some historic churches were demolished or turned into Islamic centres and militants kidnapped several Christian leaders for political purposes or financial gain. Some Christians who were killed in the civil war were martyred for their faith. The Christian quarter of Aleppo, Syria’s second city, was bombarded for months on end and the Christian population of the city dropped from 250,000 to fewer than 40,000.
The UN estimates that of the 1.8 million Christians living in Syria before the war only 600,000 – 900,000 remain. Almost the entire Christian population of some cities has fled. The Christian population of Homs, a city particularly badly affected by the war, declined from at least 60,000 to fewer than 1,000. Aleppo, on the front line of fighting between the government, rebel forces and Islamic State for much of the war, had one of the largest pre-war Christian populations in Syria, but it dropped from 250,000 to fewer than 40,000 Christians.
In August 2015, Islamic State militants captured Qaratayn in Homs Governorate, took over two hundred Christians hostage and murdered 21 of the three hundred Christians trapped in the city. Some hostages were taken to Raqqa in northern Syria, Islamic State’s de facto capital; many were ransomed by their families. The ruined city of Qaratayn was retaken by Russian-backed Syrian forces in April 2016 and Raqqa was retaken in November 2017, as Islamic State militants were pushed out of the large swathes of territory they had taken in Iraq and Syria. Some of the terrorists reportedly dispersed into the Syrian countryside, while others are believed to have escaped into Turkey.
The transformation of the civil war into a situation of “neither war nor peace” means that refugees, including Christians, have been hesitant to return until the outcome is clear. Those remaining in Syria face food shortages, lack of employment and destroyed infrastructure. The common belief that Christians are pro-government means they are tolerated in government areas but very vulnerable in areas controlled by opposition groups.
Refugees often end up living in squalid and dangerous conditions, many of them trafficked by brutal, extortionist smugglers. Church leaders in Lebanon and Turkey have been overwhelmed by the numbers of Christian refugees looking for food and shelter; Christians in refugee camps face the additional hazard of violence from extremist Muslims in the camps.
Two bishops kidnapped on 22 April 2013 in the village of Kfar Dael in northwestern Syria are still missing. Aleppo’s Syriac Orthodox bishop Yohanna Ibrahim and Greek Orthodox bishop Boulos Yaziji were on a mission to negotiate the release of two priests abducted on 9 February (Michel Kayyal of the Armenian Catholic church and Mahar Mahfouz of the Greek Orthodox church) when their car was intercepted and their driver was shot dead. The identity of the kidnappers has never been established.
Why were Christians targeted?
Christians were targeted by Islamist opposition factions who wanted Syria to become a Sunni Muslim state, notably Jabhat Fatah al Sham, the al-Qaeda offshoot previously known as Jabhat al-Nusra or Nusra Front. Such extremists adopted a slogan, “Alawites to the tomb and Christians to Beirut”. (President Assad and his supporters are Alawites, members of a Shi’ite sect that makes up only 12% of Syria’s population – the majority is Sunni Muslim – but is influential in the army and government.)
Christians were widely believed by the opposition to be supporters of President Assad, since they enjoyed relative freedom and security under the rule of the secular Baath party (which many Christians joined). The Baath party and other secular parties suppressed the Muslim Brotherhood and the more radical Salafists.
Another element in the targeting of Christians is the fact that many radical fundamentalists come from poor rural communities and urban slums and hold grudges against prosperous Christians.
(Barnabas Fund/BBC/Christian Post/Irish Times/Middle East Concern/Morning Star News/Open Doors/Operation World/Reuters/Tear Fund/UN/Voice of the Martyrs Canada/World Watch List/World Watch Monitor)
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On 22 February, Islamic State released a final group of 43 Assyrian Christian hostages from the Hassaka group abducted in February 2015.
Earlier today (29 January), another group of 16 Christian hostages was freed by Islamic State militants who had been holding them captive since February 2015.
The latest group of released hostages is comprised mainly of women and children and includes four mothers and their children. As with previous releases, the freed hostages were met by Bishop of Syria Mar Afram Athneil who is Chairman of the Assyrian Church of the East Relief Organisation (ACERO).
Yesterday (14 January), a further group of Assyrian Christian hostages was released by Islamic State militants who had been holding them captive since February 2015.
The released hostages comprised eight children, three women and five men. They arrived in Tel Temir town, Hassaka province, northeast Syria on Thursday afternoon. They were met and embraced by Archbishop Afram Athneil, Chairman of Assyrian Church of the East Relief Organisation (ACERO).